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August 11, 2019

Law by the numbers: New ABA Profile of the Legal Profession

While law school enrollment has seen a slight bump up in the last three years, the “heyday” of ever-rising numbers of law school applicants that existed before 2004 is unlikely to reoccur, predicted Daniel Rodriguez, chair of the American Bar Association Center for Innovation and former dean of Northwestern Law School, at “Beyond the Numbers: Sidebar of the 2019 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession,” held Aug. 10 at the 2019 Annual Meeting in San Francisco. 

Rodriguez was among five panelists who engaged in an in-depth look at trends in the legal profession detailed in the first ABA Profile of the Legal Profession report, a compilation of data about the legal profession from multiple sources that measures everything from demographics to discipline, pay to pro bono. The report will be updated annually. 

“This report is an important reference for anyone who wants to understand where the legal profession came from – and where it stands today,” ABA President Bob Carlson said. 

Rodriquez cited a challenging employment environment, soaring law school tuition and a decline in the perception of the law as an “extraordinarily noble calling” that prevailed in previous generations of lawyers as contributors to fading enthusiasm for law school.  

“If we are going to see an uptick that is going to stick to a significant degree, that third factor needs to be confronted,” he said. “We really need to think at the American Bar Association, and folks in the profession, about how we can re-appeal to younger people [about] the advantages, the goals and the really tremendous opportunities that come from pursuing legal education and becoming a lawyer.” 

Patricia Lee, chair of the ABA Diversity and Inclusion Center, spoke about the report’s diversity numbers, which indicated that the percentage of lawyers who are racial or ethnic minorities grew slowly over the past decade. In 2019, 85% of lawyers are white, according to the report.

“Every year you will find there is growth,” said Lee. “There isn’t enough, though.”

When seeking diverse applicants, law firms need to broaden their criteria and be “more flexible, more creative” in looking at the original applicant pool, she said. And retaining diverse attorneys is just as important as hiring them in the first place.  

“If they are going through the process of identifying diverse attorneys who would be great in their firms and provide the kinds of services to their clients that they expect, [firms] also need to have policies and procedures internally to provide the necessary support for those attorneys to provide that good work,” said Lee.

Moderator Karol Corbin Walker, chair of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and the Spirit of Excellence Awards Committee, pointed to statistics in the report indicating that the growth in the number of female law firm leaders has largely stagnated for at least a decade.

Roberta Liebenberg, former chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and co-chair of the ABA Presidential Initiative on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, pointed to ongoing research into the career trajectories of senior women. It indicates an alarming exodus of senior women – not only from law firms but out of the legal profession entirely, she said. 

“It is very clear that the culture and structure of law firms, as well as implicit biases, impact the ability of women to attain equity partner in commensurate percentages as their male counterparts,” Liebenberg said.  

A big part of the problem is the significant pay gap between senior male and female lawyers as well as the “great disconnect” between the perceptions of senior male and women on how women are being treated, she said. For example, the presidential initiative research has found that 62%  of men believe their firm are active advocates of gender diversity” while 91% of women do not see this support.


Another area where law firms are still trying to catch up is technology. According to the report, 23% of lawyers say their firm has experienced a cybersecurity breach, yet only one-third of law firms carry cyber liability insurance. That stat seems to indicate that lawyers still don’t take cybersecurity seriously, said Walker. 

“As we know, the legal profession does not have a reputation for quick adoption of technology,” said panelist Reid Trautz, co-chair of the ABA Law Practice Division Futures Initiative. “We use technology on our desktops…but we have not used technology to really innovate for our clients, and we’re pushing the profession toward that.” 

A surprising area of technology use is the number of lawyers who telecommute, Trautz said.

Fully 72% of lawyers telecommuted to some extent in 2018, according to the ABA profile report. In large firms, the percentage is even higher – 95%.  

“We are seeing more lawyers teleworking 100% of the time, and we’ve seen firms… put together not by physical presence in an office but just by connections over the internet. I think we’re going to see that grow and evolve,” Trautz said.